Favors, Inconsistencies Taint Angola Murder Case Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox spent 36 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison for the murder of a corrections officer. Decades later, questions are surfacing about how the wife of the lead investigator ended up as the forewoman on the jury and why the key witness was promised a pardon.


Favors, Inconsistencies Taint Angola Murder Case

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. In April 1972, a correction's officer was brutally murdered at Louisiana's Angola prison. Two inmates were convicted of the crime. They spent 36 years in solitary confinement, all on the testimony of one man. Yesterday, we heard about racism and violence in Angola prison back at the time of the killing. Today, NPRs Laura Sullivan has our second report on the flow of investigation into the murder of Brent Miller and growing questions about the guilt of the men who served so many decades in isolation.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Brent Miller was born and raised on Angola in a special neighborhood built just for correctional officers. He fell in love there with a girl who lived just up the street. One morning, three months after they were married, the young bride's sister came running to find her.

Ms. LEONTINE VERRETT: My sister came and said that there had been an accident, and that Brent was hurt.

SULLIVAN: Decades later, Leontine Verrett still remembers how worried Brent had been that morning. The day before, an officer barely escaped when inmates firebombed a guard shack. Be careful, Verrett told him. And now, her sister was standing in front of her.

Ms. VERRETT: I wanted her to take me to him, and that's when she said that he was dead. Everybody was just broken. I remember going home, and I had a lot of neighbors, and everybody was there.

SULLIVAN: State prosecutors say, on the morning of April 17th around 7:30 AM, four inmates Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, Chester Jackson, and Gilbert Montegut, walked into the Pine one dormitory and stabbed Brent Miller to death.

Mr. LLOYD HOYLE (Deputy Warden, Angola Prison): Not once, 38 times.

SULLIVAN: Angola's Deputy Warden Lloyd Hoyle and his boss took charge of the investigation. ..TEXT: Mr. HOYLE: He'd just been recently married. He hadn't been at the prison very long, and all of the sudden, he's annihilated, assassinated.

SULLIVAN: The response was swift. Prison officials rounded up more than 200 inmates looking for radicals like Black Panthers, men like Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. They and the others were brought to a makeshift interrogation center one floor above death row.

Mr. BILLY WAYNE SINCLAIR: You heard hollering and screaming and the bodies being slammed against the wall.

SULLIVAN: Billy Wayne Sinclair was a white inmate on death row in 1972.

Mr. SINCLAIR: Upstairs, you could smell tear gas bombs, and they would come in there and set them off. So, you know, we would have to wet stuff and put it to our faces, and we would have to turn our fans on and, you know, hope that we could, you know, suck as much out of that as we could. We heard the beatings that were going on for weeks after that.

SULLIVAN: Several inmates told me it was a bad month to be black at Angola. Sinclair says he and his fellow death row inmates would talk about how there didn't seem to be any logic to who was being interrogated. According to court records, prison officials never questioned a single white inmate.

Mr. SINCLAIR: These redneck prison guards didn't have any systematic way of investigating something. The only thing they knew is to beat the hell out of a person to make him give up what he knew.

SULLIVAN: But then there was a sudden breakthrough, and it came in a form of an inmate, Hezekiah Brown. Brown was a serial rapist with a life sentence. When he was first questioned, he said he didn't know anything. But a short time later, prison officials reported that Hezekiah Brown witnessed the crime. Brown testified he was alone in the dorm that morning making Brent Miller coffee. He said the four men burst in, grabbed Miller and began stabbing him furiously.

Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were convicted by all-white juries in less than two hours. Chester Jackson took a deal for a lesser charge and testified for the state. Gilbert Montegut was found guilty of only a minor charge when an officer provided an alibi. Jackson and Montegut have both since died.

Ms. ANNE BUTLER: Hezekiah Brown was a very good witness, and he saw what he saw.

SULLIVAN: Anne Butler heard Brown testify. She's sitting on the porch of her Southern Antebellum home just down the road from Angola while the clouds thunder overhead. Butler says she wasn't there when Woodfox and Wallace were first convicted. But in the '90s, when Woodfox got a new trial, she was forewoman of the grand jury that re-indicted him.

Ms. BUTLER: For somebody black in the prison at that time when it was so out of control and so dangerous to testify against Black Panthers who had other members out in the prison population took a lot of courage on his part. Hezekiah Brown died in 1996. But there's a lot more to this story.

Anne Butler wasn't just an average citizen doing her civic duty on the local grand jury. She's the former wife of Angola Warden Murray Henderson, the man who led the Brent Miller investigation. She also wrote a book which she says she passed around to fellow jurors about how Woodfox and Wallace did it. Even she wonders what she was doing on that jury.

Ms. BUTLER: I went to the assistant district attorney, and I said, you are going to put me off of here, right, and he said, no.

SULLIVAN: It's one of the number of problems that seems to litter the trial history of Woodfox and Wallace. Take Hezekiah Brown. He repeatedly said he received no favors or promises in exchange for his testimony. But that's not entirely true. Warden Henderson died in 2006, but a few years earlier, he admitted he, in fact, promised Brown a pardon. And sure enough, buried in the prison's records is letter after letter Henderson wrote to state officials asking for a pardon for Brown. In 1986, Governor Edwin Edwards set Brown free.

Mr. SINCLAIR: I was on death row with Hezekiah Brown. Hezekiah Brown was a professional snitch.

SULLIVAN: Billy Wayne Sinclair was serving a death sentence for shooting a store clerk, a sentence that was later amended.

Mr. SINCLAIR: He forever did everything he could to ingratiate himself to white authority. All of the other inmates knew that if you were going to do anything wrong, don't let Hezekiah Brown see you.

SULLIVAN: Even the deputy warden at that time didn't think too highly of him. Hilton Butler wouldn't talk to me about the murder or Hezekiah Brown. But on a tape, when he's talking to Anne Butler for her book, you can hear him explain that you can make Hezekiah Brown say anything you wanted him to say.

Mr. HILTON BUTLER (Former Deputy Warden, Angola Prison): But I never did believe say what Hezekiah was one you could put words in his mouth.

Mr. SINCLAIR: I know that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox and Chester Jackson and Gilbert Montegut did not kill Brent Miller in front of Hezekiah Brown and let him live.

SULLIVAN: Billy Sinclair and several other inmates who were there at the time say they felt prison officials grabbed the wrong group of activists. There is no way in the world they would put themselves in jeopardy of killing a freeman in the presence of the most notorious snitch in the main prison complex. That is not going to happen.

SULLIVAN: There were other witnesses besides Hezekiah Brown. Months after the crime, the state found four additional witnesses, inmates who said they saw one, two or all four men running from the Pine one dormitory, though, oddly, none of the witnesses saw each other. One of the four was legally blind. One was heavily medicated at the time, and the other two have recanted.

One of those, Howard baker, said he made the story up because prison officials told him they'd help him get out of Angola. He originally testified that he watched Herman Wallace run from the crime scene, enter the license tag plant, and burn his bloody clothes in the incinerator. 30 years later, when he changed his story, Baker said he could never believe, in all those years, no one ever picked up on the one huge problem with his statement. There is no incinerator in the license tag plant. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were convicted. A judge sentenced them to life. Prison officials sentenced them to solitary confinement for the next 36 years. Laura Sullivan NPR News.

(Soundbite of Neil's Theme)

NORRIS: Tomorrow, our final report from Angola prison on cracks on the case against Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. A long-lost witness is found, another suspect emerges, and a possible legal break could free one of the men. At our website, you can get a sense of what Angola prison looks like today. That's at npr.org. You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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